Hungarian government attacks opposition voices


By Andrea Schnitzer (Solidarity Correspondent, ISC)

This month, Hungary had the largest public demonstration in 25 years, the culmination of resistance against undemocratic laws passed by the center-right government. On April 4th, after little time for debate, the ruling coalition passed a law that would require universities offering foreign degrees to have a campus in their foreign countries, an intergovernmental agreement, and contracts for visiting professors, who did not previously need them. With a deadline of January 2018, the new law would force its most prestigious and the only university in the country, Central European University (CEU), with dual accreditation (in the US and Hungary), to open a school in New York which would be impossible to fulfill since the state of New York, and not the federal government, provides accreditation. Effectively, the CEU would be forced to either close or to operate illegally. After the law was passed, 80,000 people showed up in the streets to voice their disagreement with the decision, spurred on by a series of attacks against the free press, non-governmental organizations, and other regulations limiting academic freedom.

Last August, when I left South Korea to further my education in a  Central European University Master’s program, the US accreditation was a major factor in my choice. I was happy with the new opportunities it presented. I was in the audience for a BBC radio program when government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács, a CEU graduate, adamantly and combatively denied accusations of NGO intimidation and limiting of the free press and called them “nonsense.” Shortly after, the oldest independent newspaper in Hungary closed down after exposing a government corruption scandal. The government-run media had run a story on the newspaper’s closure before the workers even knew they were out of a job. The hastiness of the shutdown was so striking because it did not follow basic labor law standards. It was also suspicious that the newspaper would suddenly shut down, since it had just hired new employees. Blaming the paper for its struggling financial performance also obscured what had caused much of the problem, government-mandated financial restructuring in 2015. After the shutdown, decades of internet archives of the newspaper were suddenly unavailable, as if they had never existed.

People working in NGOs talked about the government’s strategy to assault them next. The tax authority and police conducted unannounced visits to NGO offices, demanding paperwork to prove organizations’ legitimacy. Specifically, the government targeted NGOs working on social justice, minority rights, and transparency/anti-corruption organizations, justifying its actions to the public as rooting out foreign influence. Since the government provides no funding to these organizations, they must rely on funding from the EU, Norway, or the Open Society Foundation, founded by George Soros. NGOs critical of the government have no choice but foreign funding. The ruling coalition’s Christian, nationalist agenda which rules the country denies having an NGO blacklist. Their words defy logic, yet they are not held to account.

Earlier this month, lawmakers proposed a bill in the Hungarian parliament which would target schools in the country that offered dual accreditation - CEU. The law would add onerous new regulations to the university, or force it out of the country. At the same time, rumors began to pop up in government-friendly media about the university’s legality, and false accusations flew from prime minister Viktor Orbán on TV and radio. An unexpected attack on Hungary’s top-ranked university thus began similar to that of the newspaper and NGO attacks.

No one thought the bill would pass. Even a Hungarian classmate said the ruling party was just posturing to stir up its base. As the days went by, the rhetoric against George Soros, the university founder, got angrier, louder, and more accusatory. Somehow, even though Soros has made no decisions on university operations in the last two decades, he was the “deceitful mastermind” who had “brainwashed” an entire team of academics and 1800 Master’s and PhD candidates into his agenda. Soros, a Budapest-born Jewish survivor of the Nazi occupation of Hungary, used a money market trick to bankrupt the bank of England and uses his millions of dollars to promote values of democracy and open society. He was being targeted by the top leadership of the ruling party for issues from immigration to the relative low ranking of other Hungarian universities. Disturbing historical parallels emerged between the anti-Semitic rhetoric used by Orbán and other authoritarian leaders in an attempt to garner right-wing support.

Before the bill passed, students organized protests in support of academic freedom. On April 8th, I attended an 80,000-strong protest march for academic freedom, the largest protest in 25 years.

Orsolya Lehotai, a Hungarian Master’s student with a background in political science and one of the main organizers of the protest discussed the role of protests in this situation, “The government doesn’t listen to 80,000 people protesting in the street. This is not democracy.”

The people protesting “were a lot of young people, which represents a shift in their attitudes, since they have not been very active before,” said Ms. Lehotai.

Blue-collar workers, families with children, and intellectuals also marched. Although the turnout was encouraging, the government seems to have developed a strategy to counterbalance the enthusiasm.

“All the time there seems to be a new cause to protest. We need to organize for free press. Then academic freedom. Then for civil society organizations. They want to exhaust us,” she said.

The ruling party members simply dismiss the protesters and feature them as foreign agents paid by Soros, even though the protests are organized and attended by the Hungarian people. Heads of state have accused any protest with a liberal cause as being bused in or flown in on Soros money, even though the protests are organized and attended by the Hungarian people.

After Lehotai submitted the notification of the 80,000-strong demonstration to the police authority, as required by law, they showed up at her apartment the morning of the protest.

“I approached a police officer who was walking around my building and asked who he was looking for. I noticed he had a set of keys to my building. Later that night, police cars were parked in front of my apartment. I felt so scared that I didn’t sleep in my own bed for a couple of nights. Another organizer, one at the front of the protests who ended up in a lot of pictures, had police come to their home and ask to see their passport. The officer said he couldn’t see the passport through her window, so they opened their door to show him, and legally that was an invitation for him to come into their home. The officer was just looking for a way to search their home,” said Ms. Lehotai.

I found myself frightened and shocked when I heard what happened to Lehotai and the other organizer. The gap between what I was learning in class that week on freedom of assembly and what was happening in the real world was miles apart. “Eventually the police, on the national level, made a press announcement that they don't know about the procedures that happened to me and the other student,” said Lehotai.

Csilla Kollonay-Lehoczky, a Hungarian law professor at CEU since 1997, member of the European Committee of Social Rights of the Council of Europe for 12 years and former head of the CEU Legal Studies department helped me understand the history and legal realities of the country. She showed me a video of two young Hungarian children roleplaying as a police officer and a woman with a baby in a headscarf. The script had been given to the elementary school students by their teachers. The police officer-boy threatened to throw the Syrian migrant-girl in jail, then decided to take the wad of euros offered to him instead. They danced in the end. To her, this represented the government’s policies that “instill inhumanity, greed, and hatred.” More shocking to her coming from “people who label themselves ‘Christian.’ Orbán’s main strategy is based on finding and fighting against enemies. This is the history of Hungary: we always fight amongst each other unless we have a common enemy.”

Lehoczky agreed that the government was on a mission to quash opposition voices. “Other universities’ grants are at risk if they support CEU, so at first, professors didn’t want to say anything. Eventually, some surprisingly courageous declarations and rebuttals came from high-level academics who always seemed to support the government. Nonetheless, the majority want to comply with the supposed expectations of the government. Like Michel Foucault described, we start to live in a panopticon where guards don’t even have to be present because people are supposed to close their mouths and eyes, bow, and accept what is going on. In that way, we are going through a ‘de-civilizing’, a weakening of civil society,” she said.

This tactic is not new in Hungarian history. They closely mirror those of the authoritarian Communist regime.

“I was a child in the 1950s. I remember the anti-intellectualism. Intellectuals like my father were stigmatized as an underclass below workers and peasants and as potential agents of the previous regime or of Western capitalists. I literally see the return of slogans of anti-Western propaganda today from the 1950s conspiracy of the international plutocracy against Hungary. And it’s very difficult for people to see it if they don’t have memory,” Lehoczky said.

The government’s rhetoric is very divisive. “Let’s Stop Brussels” posters, similar to the anti-immigration propaganda displayed over the summer, are plastered in public transportation, billboards on roads, and government publications. “The government incites anti-European sentiment. They say the EU wants to colonize Hungary and make it give up its sovereignty,” stated Lehoczky. In reality, “Orbán, as a member of a decision-making body, can influence or even block measures from the EU, but he chooses to incite people against Europe.”

Lehoczky sees little hope in the current democratic deficit. Rather, she sees a silver lining in the growing European and even international criticism directed at the Hungarian government.

“Now the whole world knows CEU. I hope the international community will really step up. Justice, humanity, freedom. I think these three things are important and should be important for everyone,” she said.

At that instant, I felt prouder about my choice for graduate school. The faculty are world-class, the students, who come from about 150 countries, show that diversity can exist peacefully and enrich debates, and the university itself opens up its library - the best in Hungary - to other university’s students.

“CEU was once a revered institution of higher learning in Hungary. Soros had once been revered for returning to his hometown in 1988 to support the democratic transition and establish the Open Society Foundation and the university,” said Lehoczky. “Hungarians were typically a servant people, in both world wars, under Communists, and except for a few revolutions, we have not had time to ‘civilize.’ By this, I mean that we do not have enough self-conscious members of society. We need more people who stand up for their rights.”

If academic freedom is to survive within the heavily protected borders of Hungary, organizers like Lehotai need to continue the difficult task of mobilizing supporters of liberal democracy. The future of Hungarian society depends on it.